Whether Montgomery County students take the SAT might have less to do with their backgrounds and more to do with the school they attend.
For example, at Watkins Mill High School in Montgomery Village, about 26.4 percent of graduates took the SAT. But at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, where the student body has a similar makeup, 74.6 percent took the exam.
In some schools, like Watkins Mill, more students are taking the ACT only.
“It is all about individualized, strategic decision making,” said Scott Murphy, Watkins Mill principal.
While the average school in the county had about 70.6 percent of students take the SAT this year, Watkins Mill stuck out on the list with much lower participation than the rest.
Watkins Mills’ SAT participation rate dropped 15.5 percentage points from 2011. Murphy said the decline does not concern him, because he had 70 percent of graduates take either the SAT, ACT or the Accuplacer, a community college placement exam, he said.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said he doesn’t prefer one test as opposed to another. He said he is more focused on seeing that all students have the choice to go to college.
“It is their choice,” Starr said. “It could be the SAT or the ACT, we need to provide an opportunity for our kids to go onto college, career or the military, and the exams are oftentimes a part of that. But that is their choice, not ours. ... Students should have more options when they leave us than when they came in.”
Because of growing interest in the ACT, the school system provides information and test prep for both tests, said Ursula Hermann, director of student services at the school system.
“We want kids to make an informed decision, and want to make sure they are ready for both,” Hermann said.
The ACT is an achievement test that measures what a graduate has learned in school, while the SAT uses more reasoning skills and verbal abilities, she said.
Wendy Kiang-Spray, a Rockville High counselor, said she encourages students to try both to see which is better.
“From my understanding, if you are a good test taker and you understand the ins and outs of testing, you tend to do better in the SAT, whereas the ACT is a little more driven by content,” Kiang-Spray said.
More students countywide are taking the ACT; about 30 percent of Montgomery graduates took the ACT in 2012, compared to about 24 percent in 2008.
The two student groups that have seen the biggest jump in ACT participation are black and Hispanic students.
Schools with a more diverse population generally have fewer students taking SAT. Countywide, 86.8 percent of Asian graduates took the SAT in 2012 compared to 80.6 percent of white graduates; 63.5 percent of black graduates; and 47.7 percent of Hispanic graduates.
At Watkins Mill, nearly half of students qualify for reduced-price or free meals and minority students make up more than 86 percent of the population.
In 2011, 23.5 percent of Watkins Mill graduates took only the ACT — the most out of any of the county’s 25 high schools.
But at Springbrook High, a school with similar demographics, only 6 percent of graduates took the ACT only in 2011, and 75 percent of graduates took the SAT in 2012, a percentage higher than the county average.
And like Murphy, Springbrook Principal Samuel A. Rivera said his school gives “strategic and purposeful outreach” to every kid.
But at Watkins Mill, about 18 percent of the school’s black and Hispanic students took the SAT, compared to 50 percent of white students, and just one in 44 special-education students took the SAT.
Murphy said counselors do not discourage certain groups from taking the SAT.
Christine Pickeral, a counselor at the school, agrees with Murphy that it is the school’s individual approach that sets it apart from others.
Starr said he doesn’t need all students to take at least one test, as different students have different goals.
But Hermann said students should be taking one test or the other, whether or not they think they will go to college.
“It can only help you,” she said. “... Some students may not see themselves as college-bound, and my position is that every student should be college-bound.”
While performance normally drops when participation increases, at Rockville High, both increased in 2012, with 75.9 percent of students taking the exam, compared to 68.9 percent in 2011 and an average combined score of 1525, compared to 1524 in 2011.
Principal Debra Munk attributes the school’s upward trending scores and participation to a change in awareness and culture at the school.
Students now understand the importance of taking for the tests, she said.
“In the past, they would just go take it, cold turkey,” she said.
Past Superintendent Jerry Weast developed seven keys, or milestones, for college readiness. One key was hitting 1650 or higher on the SAT or a 24 on the ACT. Of the 25 high schools, 11 met that goal in 2012.
Hermann said that, despite the fact that about half of students are not meeting the key for the SAT, she believes the school system is on track.
“If we don’t shoot for it, we’ll never get it,” she said.